Luke summed up the city of Athens pretty well in Acts 17:21 when he said that it was a place where people “would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” The fact is that by the time of Paul, Athens had become very familiar with new ideas and new ways of thinking. Athens is known as the birthplace of Philosophy and it was the home of many famous Philosophers, including the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. But Athens dealt with so many new ideas, that they had to create a system of councils who would judge these new teachers in order to decide if they could continue teaching. The Areopagus was one of those councils. In fact, history tells us that even Socrates’ teaching was considered so dangerous when he was alive that one of these councils actually decided to put him to death! Socrates was charged with “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges,” “introducing new deities,” and “the corruption of the youth.” Sure enough, Socrates made his case, but he wasn’t able to convince them and he didn’t walk away. So, this scene could have been a very dangerous one for Paul. It is about 450 years after Socrates’ death, and the reason that they bring him before the Areopagus is quite similar: they said, “‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’ because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection” (17:18). If Paul didn’t win them over here, he too might not have walked away.
So, how did Paul do what Socrates couldn’t? He seasoned the truth with grace. Notice the grace in Paul’s first words. He doesn’t judge them for their clearly idolatrous worship; he calls them “very religious.” While Socrates was accused of not acknowledging their gods, Paul brilliantly draws attention to their worship of the “gods” without technically acknowledging them as real gods. Then in the next breath, Paul completely destroys their entire belief system by proclaiming that the one true God doesn’t live in temples made by man. While Paul spoke those words, he would have been standing in front of one of the largest and most prized temples in the ancient world, the Parthenon. This was the pride and joy of the Athenians, and Paul was completely diminishing its value in front of them. Sure enough, if they had a reason to kill him, it would be for that. But they didn’t, because Paul kept seasoning with grace. He immediately quotes Epiminedes, one of their beloved Athenian Poet/Philosophers, to make the same point. He could have quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures to make the same point, but he didn’t. He decided to graciously recognize some good in their own culture. Now, if they disagreed with Paul, they would be disagreeing with their own poet.
The reason that Paul was able to walk away from a situation that Socrates couldn’t, wasn’t because he was smarter (although I think he was), it was because he was more gracious. Grace always wins! It will not fail. Remember friends, it is grace that makes a Christian, a Christian. Not just grace that we receive, but the grace that we give and grace that we live. Let’s be people who are seasoned with grace.